A mission on the move

Roxbury convent for sale as order’s focus shifts

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / February 13, 2011

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Since the late 19th century, the Society of St. Margaret, an order of Episcopal nuns, has maintained a quiet but steady presence in Boston, nursing the sick, caring for the poor, and welcoming travelers in need of a quiet place to stay, all while keeping a rigorous schedule of prayer and silent contemplation.

For more than 100 years, the nuns lived in four brownstones in Beacon Hill’s Louisburg Square, worshiping at the nearby Church of the Advent and the Church of St. John the Evangelist. In 1992, they sold their quarters — one of the buildings is now home to Senator John F. Kerry — and converted a nursing home they had previously run on Fort Hill in Roxbury into their convent.

But in recent years, the sprawling 35,000-square-foot convent has become too expensive and difficult to maintain for the 17 women who live there, many of them elderly, and the order has decided it is time to move again — to a retreat center the sisters operate in Duxbury.

Selling the convent, said Sister Carolyn Darr, the superior, would allow the sisters to devote more money and energy to their charitable and spiritual work — in particular, their small mission in Haiti, which the order has run since the 1920s and which suffered severe damage in last year’s earthquake.

“We had been talking about it because [the building] is simply more than we can manage,’’ Darr said in an interview in the convent’s sunlit chapel. “Then when the earthquake came, of course, that is our vital ministry, and we wanted to put our money behind the mission.’’

Bishop M. Thomas Shaw, a monk who is a member of the Society of St. John the Evangelist in Cambridge and the leader of the Episcopal Diocese of Massachusetts, said the move makes sense.

“Religious communities are like families in many ways, and I think families go through changes,’’ he said. “They’re going through some changes now, and refocusing in terms of what exactly their community is, and trying to be responsible as their finances are concerned, and having green buildings — and it just doesn’t work in Roxbury.’’

St. Margaret’s is one of three Episcopal religious orders in the Boston area, and one of 16 nationally. Although relatively rare in the Anglican Communion — they were suppressed in England after the Protestant Reformation — religious orders experienced a modest revival in the mid-19th century, in response to a movement to restore some Catholic traditions to the Church of England, and also in an effort to address urban poverty after the Industrial Revolution. Members take vows of chastity, poverty, and obedience, and most lead lives that blend prayer and work.

St. Margaret’s was established in 1855 as a nursing order in Sussex, England, according to the society; the order came to Boston in the early 1870s to run Children’s Hospital. But the nuns soon delved into other fields, and these days, each sister does whatever she feels called by God to do — one is a jail chaplain; another works with a children’s program run by Episcopal churches; three are priests.

In addition to the 17 sisters in Roxbury, two others work in Haiti, three at the Parish of Trinity Church in lower Manhattan, and three more at nursing facilities in New York state and Duxbury.

“Each sister is challenged to look at her gifts and interests and things she wishes she did better,’’ said Sister Kristina Frances Nordhaus. “We find places that could use a hand.’’

Hospitality is a central mission for St. Margaret’s, as it is for most Episcopal orders, and St. Margaret’s has long offered outsiders the chance to spend quiet time at their convent. (Because they are moving, they are not taking new reservations.) In Duxbury, once they complete work on a new convent, they plan to continue hosting a retreat center.

The sisters meet to worship five times a day and take their meals together, usually in silence. The convent opens its doors to anyone who wants to attend services, and, in Roxbury, they have lent their space for meetings of the Fort Hill Civic Association.

“They were perfect neighbors,’’ said Sachielle Samedi, cochair of the association. “The nuns are loved.’’

The sisters of St. Margaret range in age from 32 to 96. The majority are over 50, but even the most elderly maintain a rigorous schedule of work and prayer. One sister in her 90s, a priest, was operating the order’s website until a couple of years ago; another still cleans up every day after breakfast, leaning on her walker as she wipes down the tables and shooing away anyone who tries to help.

“We live on and on and on,’’ said Darr, who is 83. “We never retire.’’

They say they will miss the convent’s fourth-floor balcony, which affords them spectacular views of the city and the perfect perch for watching fireworks on the Fourth of July. And their neighbors. And the MBTA.

But the sisters plan to rent an apartment in Boston so that several of them can continue their work here. And they hope selling the convent — the asking price is $3.3 million — will allow them to send more sisters to Haiti, where their convent and the adjacent Episcopal cathedral and school were destroyed by the earthquake, and half of the nursing home the nuns helped run collapsed. Since the earthquake, the sisters at St. Margaret’s have been raising money and sending barrelfuls of clothing and supplies to their mission.

The order has reached a tentative sale agreement with the founding board of the proposed Bridge Boston Charter School, contingent upon the school’s receiving a charter from the state and upon its obtaining the required city zoning approval. As a public charter school, Bridge Boston would be nonsectarian and would accept students by lottery, but many of the board members were deeply involved with the Epiphany School, an independent Episcopal school in Dorchester that educates children from low-income families.

A number of neighbors, stunned that the nuns were leaving and upset that the order had not consulted abutters regarding the convent’s future use, opposed the sale at a neighborhood meeting last week. The nuns are now meeting with neighbors individually to discuss their concerns.

One neighbor, Galen Gilbert, said he wouldn’t mind a school there, and thought others might eventually come around.

“It’s a sense of mourning,’’ he said. “You can’t talk business when you’re mourning.’’

Cheryl Alexander, president of the Bridge Boston board, said that the convent would provide the charter school with the stability it needs to take root and grow at a fraction of the cost of building a new school.

“St. Margaret’s needs to do something different for their mission to succeed,’’ she said, “but to have their magnificent site be part of this other really important effort to serve Boston kids, I think, is pretty exciting, and I hope the neighbors will feel that too.’’

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at